There are at least two ways to generate a crowd at a food safety conference. You can do a panel of opponents where individuals who’ve been on opposite sides speak from the same podium.
The other, which usually attracts the largest audience, is to put the top officials from the various food safety agencies on one stage to take audience questions.
At the 21st Annual Food Safety Summit in Chicago last week, it was the latter approach that drew the big crowd. The “interactive Town Hall” featured Paul Kiecker, deputy director of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS); Dr. Robert Tauxe, director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases; Steve Mandernach, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials of the United States (AFDO); and Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commission for Food Policy and Response.
Each of these “four horsemen” had about five minutes to speak before taking a seat for the Town Hall Q&A session, which was in suburban Chicago at the Robert Stephens Convention Center.
I usually take notes in such sessions, but I was too distracted at the beginning of this one with my side conversations that I did not get around to it. My bad. But, I think it says something about what each of these gentlemen said that my memory of their remarks is pretty good.
First up was Mandernach, who shared the work AFDO’s been doing on recalls, specifically the Class 1 recalls, which have the potential for causing human illnesses or even death. FSIS and FDA each have their own recall procedures and Mandernach says there are differences between the two.
In the Q&A session that followed, sales of recall food products on such platforms as Amazon came up as an area that needs work.
Kiecker said FSIS plans to make 2019 a year of modernization, especially for swine inspections and maybe beef in some conceptional form by year’s end. He strongly objects to critics of the new swine inspection program who say it privatizes part of the inspection program. Kiecker said nothing could be further from the truth. He acknowledged FSIS is under pressure to manage the Salmonella issue before Congress takes up the task.
CDC’s Tauxe, known for his signature bow tie, mainly addressed the improved investigations marked by whole genome sequencing or WGS.
It is described as the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s genome with a single laboratory approach. The WGS process makes it possible for the CDC to identify outbreak illnesses from the past and present, as well as patients in the future, by using an ever-growing database of pathogen profiles. Tauxe says CDC is finding WGS makes it possible to name the specific pathogen in an outbreak before that actual source is known.
Finally, there was the FDA’s Yiannas.
He and Acting FDA Commissioner Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless on April 30 announced the “New Era of Smarter Food Safety” plan. Yiannas told the Food Safety Summit attendees that “Smarter Food Safety” is not a replacement for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), nor is it just a tagline or slogan.
Yiannas sees that the world is moving at digital speed and “Smarter Food Safety” is about moving fast enough. During the Q&A session, he said just because the FDA delayed the dates for compliance with water quality standards under the FSMA produce rule does not mean there is nothing going on until then.
Water, likely contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 from nearby feedlots is implicated in the recent romaine and leafy green outbreaks. It’s not determined for certain if the outbreaks would have been prevented if the new water quality standards for pathogen testing had been in place.
According to the deputy commissioners, the Yuma growing region appears to have gotten through its latest season without another outbreak.
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